Ukraine’s Fight Against Corruption

Happy Monday! Congratulations to the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles on punching their tickets to State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona in two weeks.

Thirty-one teams aren’t going to win the Super Bowl this year. Only one of those teams has the first pick in the NFL draft. 

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of inflation, the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, increased 5 percent year-over-year in December, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported Friday—the slowest such pace since September 2021 and down from a 5.5 percent annual rate in November. After stripping out more volatile food and energy prices, core PCE increased at a 4.4 percent annual rate in December. Consumer spending, meanwhile, fell 0.2 percent from November to December, after dropping 0.1 percent the month before. Federal Reserve board members will meet later this week to discuss additional interest rate hikes.
  • Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Friday the Justice Department had charged three Iran-backed individuals with money laundering and murder-for-hire in a plot to kill an Iranian-American journalist critical of Iran’s human rights record. The men—who are members of an Eastern European crime organization with ties to Iran—allegedly sought to kill Masih Alinejad, who identified herself as the target of the assassination on Twitter and was also the object of an attempted kidnapping scheme in 2021.
  • The Russian prosecutor-general’s office banned Meduza last week, cutting off the largest remaining independent Russian news site for allegedly “posing a threat to the foundations of the Russian Federation’s constitutional order and national security.” The move makes it illegal to “cooperate” with Meduza journalists or share a hyperlink to their website, under penalty of up to six years in prison.
  • Seven Israelis worshippers were killed at a synagogue on Friday night when a Palestinian man opened fire during worship. The attack, which took place on Holocaust Remembrance Day, is the deadliest of its kind since Israel’s new right-wing government took power in December.
  • The city of Memphis released four videos Friday evening—three from police body cameras, one from an overhead surveillance camera—depicting the events leading up to the death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols earlier this month. The footage shows five Memphis officers beating Nichols relentlessly after pulling him over on January 7 on suspicion of reckless driving. The officers violently pulled Nichols from his vehicle, subjecting him to a barrage of contradictory orders as they punched and kicked him for an extended time. 
  • Petr Pavel, a retired NATO commander, was elected president of the Czech Republic on Saturday, defeating billionaire and former prime minister Andrej Babis with 58 percent of the vote to Babis’ 42 percent on the second ballot.
  • In his first public remarks since classified material was found at his home in Indiana, former Vice President Mike Pence told Fox News on Friday he takes “full responsibility” for the documents’ presence in his house, adding that “mistakes were made” when he and his team were packing up in the final days of the Trump administration. The possible 2024 candidate promised to fully cooperate with any and all investigations. 
  • Members of the Republican National Committee (RNC) voted 111-51 on Friday to re-elect Ronna McDaniel to a fourth term as the party’s chairwoman. McDaniel defeated Harmeet Dhillon, the RNC’s national committeewoman from California, and Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO who played a prominent role in spreading lies central to former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

Ukraine Confronts Corruption

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a meeting in Lviv, Ukraine. (Photo by Yan Dobronosov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

Ukrainian investigative journalist Denys Bigus made his name uncovering the shady financial dealings of a former president who eventually fled the country, leaving behind an opulent car collection and private zoo. These days, Bigus has put his journalism career on hold to help push back Russia’s attack by operating drones. 

Bigus’ trajectory is just one example of how fighting off the Russian invasion has distracted attention from Ukraine’s ongoing fight against corruption. But the ouster of more than a dozen Ukrainian officials last week—several accused of graft—has put the spotlight back on the problem. While Western officials have praised Kyiv’s response so far and say there’s no evidence of the United States’ aid being misused, Ukrainian officials know continuing corruption could undermine the West’s goodwill.

Ukraine has long struggled with corruption, though a coalition of fed-up citizens, nonprofits, and investigative journalists have driven governmental reforms. Changes include the 2015 establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, the ending of widely misused proxy voting in parliament, and police reform. President Volodymyr Zelensky came to power on promises of rooting out malfeasance and drove the passage of a 2021 “de-oligarchization” bill aimed at reducing the political leverage of the wealthy businessmen. But he made little headway in reforming the judiciary and his administration faced its own questions of cronyism. “He wasn’t a complete failure; he wasn’t a complete success,” said Erik Herron, author of a book on Ukrainian corruption and a political science professor at West Virginia University. “He had a mixed record.”

But in 2021, despite improvements, Ukraine still ranked the 122nd worst out of 180 countries for perceived corruption—second only to Russia in Europe. A September 2021 European Court of Auditors report concluded “grand corruption and state capture are still widespread in Ukraine” and caused the annual loss of “tens of billions of euros.” 

The war has papered over some of these problems. It has given Zelensky’s government openings to further undermine oligarchs’ power—the military seized shares of several major oligarch-owned industrial companies, for example, though the government says they’ll be returned or paid for after the war. But the conflict has created openings for profiteering. Take ProZorro, for example, a digital procurement system that lets Ukrainians see what officials spend and has saved an estimated $6 billion in public funds since 2017. For security reasons, military spending hasn’t been public on the system during the war, leaving room for what looks like a textbook case of profiteering: Investigative journalist Yuriy Nikolov reported January 21 that the military had agreed to pay wildly inflated prices for eggs and other food, forcing the resignation of deputy defense minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov, who denies wrongdoing.

“During the war, not doing a normal procurement process is a shortcut,” Herron said. “It lets you get things to the field quickly, and your troops need them. But the trade-off is it creates this opportunity for profiteers to illicitly steal money from Ukrainian people and from their own military.”

Several such scandals trickled out last week. Anti-corruption investigators detained Vasyl Lozinskyi, deputy minister of infrastructure, alleging he helped inflate the prices for emergency equipment including generators and pocketed some $400,000. Two more senior officials were forced out over their penchant for flashy cars—one accused of personally using a Chevrolet Tahoe donated for humanitarian assistance and another who reportedly borrowed an oligarch’s Mercedes for a vacation to Spain over the New Year holiday. That accusation had already prompted Zelensky to include officials in the ban on military-aged men leaving the country.

Ukrainian leaders addressed the scandals head-on, painting them as anomalies but nonetheless serious. “Since February 24, officials at all levels have been constantly warned through official and unofficial channels: focus on the war, help the victims, reduce bureaucracy and stop doing dubious business,” wrote Davyd Arakhamia, head of Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, per a translation. “Many of them have actually listened, but some, unfortunately, did not.”

Zelensky promised ongoing action, knowing the perception of widespread fraud could undermine Western support. “Any internal problems that interfere with the state are being cleaned up and will be cleaned up,” he said, per a translation. “This is only fair, it is necessary for our protection and it helps our rapprochement with the European institutions… We need a strong state, and Ukraine will be just that.”

The ugly headlines haven’t dissuaded Western supporters so far—Sens. Lindsey Graham and Richard Blumenthal reiterated their backing after returning from a trip to Kyiv. “We’re confident this is the first step in a long journey to change the way business is done,” Graham said of the ousters. Blumenthal added that the removals prove “there will be zero tolerance for fraud or waste.”

Some analysts see how the scandals came to light—dug up by Ukraine’s own watchdogs and anti-corruption officials—as a reason for optimism. “I actually think we should be looking at this as a positive,” said Conor Savoy, a senior fellow with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Ukrainian government is taking action in the middle of a war to deal with allegations of corruption in their government.”

And so far, none of the accusations concern the United States’ military or humanitarian aid. The Department of Defense requires Ukrainian forces to track equipment and report damages, and when possible U.S. officials perform in-country inspections. A DOD official told senators last week the department is going beyond its normal oversight procedures and “has not seen credible evidence of any diversion of U.S.-provided weapons outside of Ukraine.” The World Bank has been distributing the U.S.’s “direct budgetary support”—which goes to hospitals, schools, emergency responders, and other basic government services—and USAID officials told senators last week that the agency has been using “extraordinary measures” to track that money, including a Deloitte audit last fall that found “no significant areas of concern.”

Ukraine’s international supporters are already laying plans for rebuilding after the war, when an infusion of cash to help rebuilding efforts could provide myriad opportunities for abuse and waste. “There’s a lot of incentive on [Ukraine’s] part to get it right,” Savoy said, both to shake off the country’s reputation for corruption and secure economic ties to the West. “They can win this thing militarily, but I think if we don’t tackle these tough challenges—like corruption and other issues related to governance and rule of law—in the postwar period, they could very well lose the peace.”

Herron agreed, noting that continued Western attention could provide support for rebuilding freer, more accountable institutions. “The war is a terrible thing,” he said. “But it will also be a reset for Ukrainian society when the war ends, and it does create some real opportunities to address some of the shortcomings of anti-corruption reform that we saw before the war.”

Introducing Dispatch Politics

Believe it or not, we are roughly one year away from the first ballots being cast in the 2024 presidential primary. If it feels like the 2022 midterm elections just ended, that’s because they did. But the next fight for control of the White House—and the Senate, House, various governor’s mansions, state legislatures, etc.—is already underway, with would-be candidates building up their political operations and figuring out how to set themselves apart. The Dispatch has been making preparations of our own.

We are excited to launch Dispatch Politics today, led by an experienced team of Dispatch reporters—Andrew Egger, David Drucker, and Audrey Fahlberg. This new offering will cover the run-up to 2024 the only way we know how: comprehensively, fairly, and whenever possible, with a little humor. With breaking news, sharp analysis, candidate interviews, and more—we’ve been reliably told it’ll be like The Morning Dispatch, but for politics.

We’ll publish Dispatch Politics twice weekly to start, ramping up over the summer into fall, as we enter presidential debate season and a heavier campaign schedule. The first edition—featuring an interview with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a dispatch from last week’ RNC meeting—will be out later this morning. If you want to receive it in your inbox, just click here and make sure the box under Dispatch Politics is checked. Andrew spent most of last week in Laguna Beach, California, covering the Republican Party’s winter meetings. Here’s a preview of what you can expect.

This year’s contest to run the RNC had been an unusually high-profile and polarizing affair.

Harmeet Dhillon, a Republican committeewoman from California, announced in early December that she would run for party chair, arguing that the RNC had grown stagnant under Ronna McDaniel’s leadership: underperforming in elections, spending too much on consultant kickbacks, and losing touch with grassroots voters. She took her case straight to those grassroots, making appearances on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and Steve Bannon’s podcast, and attracting endorsements from MAGA personalities including Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk and former Arizona governor candidate Kari Lake.

Grassroots activist and Dhillon supporter Scott Presler gave insurgent GOP forces an outlet for their enthusiasm, publishing a “Hire Harmeet” website that included email addresses and Twitter handles for all 168 voting members of the RNC. (That body is constituted of three-person delegations from all 50 states, the five U.S. territories, and D.C.) Party officials found themselves buried in a blizzard of pro-Harmeet communications. It wasn’t enough: McDaniel defeated Dhillon, 111-51.

That the Republican Party remains divided isn’t news. But one fascinating thing about the RNC chair squabble was the unusual political lines along which it split.

In recent years, it’s been common to think about intra-Republican fights as contests between the old establishment and Trump’s MAGA wing—but this wasn’t that. For one thing, the RNC as a whole has been largely remade in Trump’s image: As the New York Times noted last week, 99 of the body’s 168 members were first elected by their state parties in 2016 or later, with old George W. Bush and John McCain allies cast aside by the dozens to make way for new blood.

Moreover, Trump and McDaniel remain allies: The former president congratulated her on Truth Social following her victory, echoing her call for party unity against the Democrats. And Dhillon counted among her supporters some of the RNC’s staunchest Trump skeptics, like New Jersey committeeman Bill Palatucci. In fact, Dhillon made McDaniel’s closeness with Trump a significant line of attack, pointing out that top Trump aides were whipping votes for the incumbent and arguing McDaniel was too close to the former president to remain neutral in the 2024 primary.

This dynamic crystallized the day before the vote when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis—Trump’s top likely challenger in the primary—told The Charlie Kirk Show “we need to get some new blood in the RNC” and “I like what Harmeet Dhillon has said.”

Again, to get the rest of this item later today—and an interview with Pompeo—be sure to sign up for Dispatch Politics on the newsletters page

Worth Your Time

  • If Kraft Mac & Cheese isn’t a regular staple in your diet, you’re missing out. It is, as Ivana Rihter calls it, “the food of troubled times.” Writing for Catapult, Rihter describes her affection for the neon-yellow pasta, a symbol of her upbringing as the child of refugees from the Yugoslav war. “No one in my family can agree on the exact moment Kraft infiltrated our Balkan home,” she writes. “My mother insists she never bought it, and Baba suspects my uncle was at fault somehow. Despite this unremarkable entrance, I started asking for it—even begging for it. Traditional Balkan food takes a lot of time and care to get right. While my family ran around trying to keep up multiple jobs and dealing with trauma upon trauma, the short cooking time became all the more alluring. My mother was especially gifted in the kitchen, but the task of daily feedings usually fell to my grandmother, who was often in charge of taking care of me and keeping me full. My Baba taught me to make it with the same care she taught me to make baklava. Guess which one I make more often.”
  • In 1961, Patrice Lumumba—the first democratically-elected prime minister of the newly independent Congo—was tortured and assassinated by political rivals, in the presence of Belgian officials, after being deposed in a coup. The Belgian police commissioner who disposed of his body—which was never found—kept two gold-capped molars, and, in June, one of them finally returned to the Congo, Andres Schipani writes for FT Magazine. “In the Congolese spiritual tradition, a single part of a body—a nail, a clump of hair, a bone or tooth—could represent the whole person” and the burial of that body part would allow the soul to rest in peace, Schipani writes. “The people I spoke to rarely referred to it as la dent (the tooth), but rather as le corps (the body). As I stood on a balcony overlooking Lumumba’s casket in Kinshasa’s Palais de la Nation, Marie Misamu Bakala, a 62-year-old janitor, squeezed herself through the door, in between dignitaries, to be able to see ‘Papa Lumumba’ for the first and last time. She was only a year old when he was killed, but remembered her parents speaking fondly of him. She broke into tears. ‘Papa is home, finally,’ she whispered. ‘It has been too long.’”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • With the House’s more open legislative process, lawmakers spent hours last week voting on dozens of amendments to a three-page bill. Friday’s Uphill (🔒) breaks down what this could mean for the chamber’s future. Plus, Haley interviews Rep. Dan Newhouse, who will sit on the new select committee on competition with the Chinese Communist Party.
  • With Trump, Haley, DeSantis, Pompeo, and Pence all making moves last week, it’s safe to say the 2024 presidential primary has officially begun. “Like bad plastic surgery, this will be ugly and expensive,” Chris writes in his latest Stirewaltisms (🔒). “It will feature multiple lead changes, boomlets, bustlets, failures to launch, out-of-nowhere surges, scandals, and a million manufactured controversies.”
  • Nick’s latest Boiling Frogs (🔒) points out how meaningless the distinctions between Ronna McDaniel and Harmeet Dhillon were in last week’s RNC race. “The GOP’s electoral fortunes during McDaniel’s tenure have been dismal, undeniably,” he writes. “It’s understandable that Republicans would clamor to oust the leader responsible for so many failures. But, again, Ronna McDaniel ain’t that leader.”
  • In Friday’s G-File—and on Saturday’s Remnant—Jonah tells us how he really feels about the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock. “There’s nothing particularly ‘scientific’ about the clock,” he writes. “It’s just a bunch of experts expressing an opinion and boiling it down to a dopey clock intended to scare the bejeebus out of people.”
  • On the site over the weekend, Steve and Jonah said farewell (sort of) to David French, and David Drucker published his first piece for the site—an early look at Nikki Haley’s inevitable presidential campaign. Plus: Nick Mauer reviews a new exhibit at the National Museum of American History, Audrey explains DirecTV’s decision to drop Newsmax, and Alec defends the timeless beauty of Casablanca on the film’s 80th birthday. 
  • On the site today, Alec reports on the recent tech layoffs, Chris examines Donald Trump’s attempted comeback, and David Drucker writes about Pompeo’s likely presidential bid.

Let Us Know

What’s an under-the-radar story you’re hoping to see Dispatch Politics cover in the lead up to 2024?

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